Quotidian Theatre Company's Pygmalion
My Fair Lady is one of the great classics of the American musical stage. But before Julie Andrews, before Lerner and Lowe, My Fair Lady was a stage play by Bernard Shaw called Pygmalion. Of the people who know this fact, few have probably seen Shaw’s piece enacted. The popularity of the musical, along with Shaw's lengthy speeches, makes theatre companies less likely to pick Pygmalion over another piece in the Shaw oeuvre.
Eliza Doolittle, a poor flower girl, is taken in by the pompous professor Henry Higgins. Higgins is a linguist, and Colonel Pickering, a fellow enthusiast, has made a wager with Higgins. Pass Doolittle off as a duchess at an embassy ball in six months. Higgins succeeds in teaching Doolittle how to speak, but not in treating her like a human being. As Eliza learns how to behave properly, she also learns who she is, and the importance of independence. As she says wisely to Colonel Pickering in the final scene, “the difference between a flower girl and a lady is not how she behaves, but how she's treated. I shall always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins, because he always treats me as a flower girl, but I know I can be a lady to you, because you always treat me as a lady, and always will.”
Indeed, the director (Stephanie Mumford) could learn something from that speech. While watching the production I often wished the Mumford would treat us audience members as intelligent beings. Indeed, I suspect that had she, she would have found that her audience rose to the occasion. Instead Mumford treats us like we just aren’t going to get the play or her artistic ideas. The result is heavy-handed direction that distracts from anything the actors are trying to accomplish.
At the back wall, center stage is Jean-Leon Gérôme painting of the Pygmalion myth. This would have been a very nice touch, had Mumford not ruined it. First there was the curtain speech. An employee of the theatre comes out and asks, “Does anyone know who Pygmalion was?” A fair number of the audience raises their hands. Then, as if to a child, she points to one audience member, “Would you like to tell everyone who Pygmalion was?” The lady in the audience responds, “No.” Unabashed our curtain speech giver informs the audience herself, and then is sure to point out the painting in the middle of the stage. If you feel it necessary to explain the myth of Pygmalion, the place for that is in the program, not in the curtain speech.
I could have forgiven the curtain speech if not for the choice Mumford makes later. Eliza comes to Higgins residence to ask him to teach her. Higgins is not convinced, he ponders whether he should do it or not. He turns, sees the painting, the lights dim, the light on the painting becomes brighter, and we hear, I kid you not, a chorus of angels, “Ahhhhhhh.” Then the lights go back to normal and Higgins decides to take the challenge on.
Mumford’s direction creates many more awkward moments. In the beginning of the play it is raining. Characters run around with umbrellas covering their faces. It lasts long enough to become distracting. What’s the point? Higgins hears the characters talk, identifies where they grew up, and up fly the umbrellas, and the characters ask, “how did you know that?” We only see each character's face after Higgins correctly names where he or she comes from. Not exactly subtle.
The set is detailed, normally a plus. But there is just too much stuff in this small space. As a result, actors are constantly winding their way around hat racks and chairs. There was not a single scene without extremely awkward blocking. The final scene, and arguably the most important, takes place completely in a 10 foot circle all the way stage right. And despite all the careful attention to set pieces and props, actors are forced to constantly drink invisible liquids.
For the most part the actors in this play deserve better. Michael Avolio plays Freddy Eynsford Hill with a likeable and appropriate youthful enthusiasm. Jane Squier Bruns does a very nice job as both Mrs. Pearce, Higgins’ housekeeper, and Mrs. Higgins, his mother. Steven LaRocque brings comic touches as Alfred Doolittle, Eliza’s father.
John Allnutt has a few good moments as Higgins, but he never really seems to embody the professor’s arrogance and overbearing attitude. This becomes especially noticeable in the second act, where Allnutt doesn’t seem to believe half the things that come out of his mouth. Furthermore he does some things that seem completely out of character, laying on the floor, kneeling down to Eliza, etc.
Maura Stadem is charming as Eliza Doolittle. Her eyes sparkle and she has an engaging face. She is a little stiff in the first half, but is delightful in the her first scene as a proper speaking English woman.
All the actors' accents are quite admirable, thanks to the dialect coach, Clare Flood. Unfortunately, what might be a decent production is marred by poor directing choices.